"The Royal Academy and Other Exhibitions." Blackwood's Edunburgh Magazine 88.537 (Jul. 1860): 79-84. Excerpt.

But we must not quite forget Mr Millais's "Black Brunswickers"--black enough indeed in broadcloth and in black-shadowed flesh, contrasted as by trick with the white pearl-satin of the lady's dress. The subject is a scene of lovers parting on the eve of battle, with clasped arms and breaking hearts,--in composition and sentiment a companion picture to "The Huguenots," by some deemed the artist's masterpiece. The composition seems to involve some conflict of doubtful purpose, which the public has attempted in vain to interpret. The "Black Brunswicker" would appear to desire an escape, but the lady, with arm twisted in forced attitude, still holds close[d] the door, while an engraving from the well-known picture, "Napoleon on Horseback Crossing the Alps," has further

perplexed the critics with the possible intricacies of cross purposes and rival jealousies. We must, like others, leave the picture to speak for itself. In execution the work is guiltless of that loose sketchy carelessness into which the artist has latterly been betrayed, and wisely reverts to the higher finish of his earlier productions. Mr Millais has of course produced a sensation by his satin gown, as Terburg did before him. Terburg, however, failed on these too easy terms to win for himself or his well-known work a first-class position. But we are glad in any manner to escape from the solemn burlesque of the last few years in "The Vale of Rest," "Spring" junketing, and "Sir Isumbras at the Ford." We have still, however, to deplore eccentricity in the place of originality,--we are still offended by attitudes and tricks designed solely to arrest attention; and we ask in vain, as we stand before this work, scarcely rising above commonplace in thought and treatment, for the fulfilment of the promise given in "The Order of Release," or for the realisation of those saving truths which the school of the Pre-Raphaelites once pretended to reveal. . . .

But there are yet two works, aspiring on boldest wing to the upmost heights of historic and religious art, which demand our notice. Mr Holman Hunt's "Finding of Christ in the Temple," and Mr Watt's "School of Legislation," are certainly the most important, if not the most successful pictures of the year. It was long known that Mr Holman Hunt had been engaged upon this subject. Six years have been devoted to its study and its painting. In true realistic spirit, the artist deemed it essential that a historic subject, aiming at the last degree of accuracy and detail, should be painted on its own ground. For this purpose the journey to Jerusalem was undertaken; eighteen months were devoted to the accumulation of exact material, the reading of Jewish records, and the taking of minute studies. Hence we are told that the robes, the architecture, and other accessories, are of critical accuracy. The gold-plated doors, the marble-laid floor, the roll of the Prophets in the hand of the rabbi, and the phylactery bound to the forehead,--all come, it is said, with the sanction of authority. Even the doctors here seated in the picture may be still found as blind and aged Jews walking the streets of Jeruasalem. With a reserve, scarcely, we think, to be justified in a matter of such moment, we are still kept, however, uninformed of the exact address of "the Holy Family!" The devotees of true historic and sacred art have also surely an interest in hearing where in Nazareth such rich robed dresses could be found. In a picture presuming to merits so unprecedented, we cannot but think it essential that imagination, which has so grossly misled all the greatest painters of antiquity, should be fairly driven from the field. Mr Hunt has undoubtedly obtained a great success, and let it not be for one moment supposed that lofty imagination, divine creation, or faculties which concern themselves with the ideal, can divide or dispute with him the honour which should alone redound to the keenness of his eye and the cunning of his hand.

As we enter the room in the German Gallery set apart for the exhibition of this picture, it must be admitted that the reality which breaks upon the spectator is startling. There we see the rabbis--seven old Jews--seated side by side in an outer chamber of the Temple, with gilded columns and gold-laid doors, roof rich in honeycomb pendants set with jewelled colours, the lattice-screen and the opened portals showing the city walls and towers beyond with the still more distant hills which bound the view. The infant Christ has been standing in the midst, a noble youth, vigorous in health and frame, with large soul-like eyes, and a golden crown of luxuriant hair. The rabbis, old broken men in the twilight of intellect, seem to have been somewhat confounded and amazed; still evidently they kept their ground even to the last, when a diversion came to their relief. Mary, the anxious mother, with St Joseph, weary with fruitless search, enter, and surprise their child of twelve ears old as he argues with the aged doctors. The mother--a frail, delicate form, the eyes pendent in sorrow, the mouth open with sudden ecstasy--presses on to tender embrace. In wondering abstraction, with eyes lost in infinitude, the youthful Christ is for the moment divided between the doctors, from whom he turns, and his parents, whom he meets, as if the "Father's business" rose in conflict with earthly claims. St Joseph stands close behind. The moment and the incident are happily chosen, and every eye is turned towards the wondrous boy and his parents in their meeting and embrace.

The execution certainly does full justice to the conception. Technical skill so consummate, handling which conceals its method in accomplishing its end, cannot but win admiration, even were the theme less noble. The eye is verily wonderstruck as detail after detail seizes, and, for the time, engrosses the entire attention. But rest or concentration there is none. The little boy in dazzling attire flapping off flies, and the beggar in sack-cloth at the door crying for alms, irresistibly allure to the corner of the canvass, till in the infinite distraction Christ is overlooked. The divinity, indeed, which should reign supreme, is forgotten in breathless admiration bestowed upon the matchless hem of some outer garment. The very boast of this work, its countless detail, is indeed in some sort its defect. Unity--a unity, if you will, in boundless variety, but still for ever unity--is indispensable to sustained expression and noble purpose. To this paramount unity subordination is essential--a self-denying merit which the turbulence of Pre-Raphaelite works has never rendered possible. In this very picture, for example, the paramount idea should be Christ--his personality and divinity. Everything besides, every inferior object, should sink in retiring humility, and bend in reverence, as before a God incarnate. In Raphael's grand picture, the "San Sisto," in Dresden, unity reigns throughout, all tending heavenward, from the cherub boys gazing upwards to the venerable pope on bended knee. This work, then, by Mr Hunt is no doubt marvellous in execution, incredible in labour, a noble monument of skill and study. But we would ask whether the multitudes thronging the room leave the picture with the hallowed sense of the divine. If this be not the paramount idea, the picture fails of a sacred mission.

There is, indeed, in this work, important and praiseworthy though it be, the absence of those higher mental qualities which have given to the great Italian pictures of the middle ages their claim to immortality. On several successive visits we have been struck with the sense of its smallness and comparative insignificance, wholly unlike to that largeness and vastness which, in the works of the noblest masters, seem to fill and awe the soul. In subjects of this dignity, it were indeed desirable that the figures should at least reach life size. The great historic and sacred painters of past times have deemed largeness of dimension as essential to their purpose; and even in our own school, Barry, Fuseli, and Haydon, contended for size as essential to power. It is therefore matter of regret, though scarcely, all things considered, ground for censure, that Mr Hunt has designed his figures so far beneath life stature as to give to his work a comparative insignificance. But to himself alone must be imputed the fault that he has chosen a manner which has still further dwarfed his too narrow scale. There is a large, bold, broad style, strong and clenching in its shadows, and forcible in its speaking lights, a largeness of purpose concentrated and united to one common and combined result, which has power to exalt even subordinate size into paramount importance. But there is, on the contrary, a small detailed handling, which chops up a subject into insignificance, and at once destroys its grandeur. Mr Hunt has chosen to pay away his genius in the mint and the cummin, and has therefore necessarily neglected the weghtier matters of the law. He might perchance have received tithes from Melchisedec, instead of which he has gone to Jerusalem to gather among the stubble of that miserable city a few scattered ears of corn, sometimes even puttintg into his garner tares instead of wheat.

We think it also incompatible with the elevation essential to the loftiest argument, that Mr Hunt should find himself so closely wedded to the actual and realistic schools. In sacred subjects, which are avowedly not wholly of this world, it is not only desirable, but necessary, that ordinary earthly forms and characters should be inspired with somewhat of a supermundane purity, dignity, and holiness. What is the function of creative genius, where the sphere of inspiration, if not found here? What constitutes the victory of imagination--the vision divine of the originative poet--if not in the realisation of a beauty and truth beyond the ken of the common eye? What was the glory and the genius of Raphael, Da Vinci, and others, if imagination and creation and all that is ideal and transcendent, go for naught, and painting be but a blind transcript of ordinary nature just in her everyday garb? These great painters went through the labour and fag of minutest study from actual characters, as their sketches and drawings abundantly testify. But for what purpose? Why, that they might at length reach by a wide induction a high generic type of noble humanity--that rabbis, and prophets, and apostles, might indees be something more than mere old toothless Jews found about the streets. We need scarcely say that Mr Hunt's great work fails grievously in the elevation required of such a subject. We think, indeed, there is but one opinion, that just as the characters involve divinity is the picture most at fault. The Christ is a noble generous youth, but little more; the Madonna a youthful interesting maiden. The artist does not appear to have asked for inspiration; and assuredly he did not get it. Short of this highest element, which indeed includes all that is usually meant by genius, imagination, and original creation, "The Finding of Christ in the Temple" is a great and successful work. We wholly dissent from the eulogists who have already handed it down to posterity as the marvel of the age; yet, without hesitation, we pronounce it, with all its shortcomings, the great picture of the season. We honour the artist who has laboured so zealously and so well. He has already found his reward, and time will give him a place in history.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 2000 Thomas J. Tobin.

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